At one point during the two-hour premiere of Citizen Rose, her new E! docuseries, Rose McGowan describes her life as “trauma on top of trauma on top of trauma.” The series, which delves deep into McGowan’s upbringing in a cult and her Hollywood sex symbol status, as well as her alleged sexual assault and its aftermath, is far more substantial and devastating than standard E! programming.
Watching McGowan’s story get the reality-TV treatment is at once slightly disturbing and incredibly powerful. On the one hand, employing the pacing and editing techniques typically reserved for the Kardashians to make a survivor’s journey all the more watchable raises difficult questions. Between the flashes of tweets and the celebrity cameos, Citizen Rose is designed to be, if not purely entertaining, at the very least compelling. The prospect of bingeing on a series about one of the worst things that could ever happen to a human being ought to make audiences uneasy. How should we feel when we are consuming McGowan’s story—especially considering that the actress’s recurring trauma seems to result from decades of commodification and consumption?
Of course, the flip side of this discomfort is the miracle of there being an appetite for a survivor’s story in the first place, and the fact that the #MeToo movement is mainstream enough to merit a major E! series is pretty remarkable.
Citizen Rose takes on a portion of one of the biggest news stories of 2017: the outing of Harvey Weinstein as an alleged serial rapist and sexual abuser. Weinstein, whose name and face is obscured in McGowan’s series, is one of the many characters on Citizen Rose who has become a household name. And while the series takes pains not to amplify Weinstein’s infamy, it gives over its platforms to some of the heroes of the Weinstein saga. Ronan Farrow, the journalist who helped expose Weinstein with his New Yorker reporting, appears on Citizen Rose to thank McGowan for coming forward. It’s one of the many moments in the series that successfully brings audiences behind the scenes of crucial moments in the #MeToo timeline. We learn that McGowan was one of the first women to talk to Farrow, as he recalls, “When I first talked to you…at the end of that interview, when I said, are there others, and you said, ‘I know there are others,’ I then went out and started calling women.”
Farrow goes on to compare Weinstein’s decades of alleged abuse and network of spies to a detective novel, and McGowan explains the intense loneliness of being called crazy and paranoid for years because nobody believed that the producer was actively attempting to intimidate and silence her. After “twenty years, with everyone saying ‘you’re not seeing what you’re seeing,’” Farrow’s reporting finally, publicly confirmed what she had been privately alleging in the years since she was assaulted. She concludes, “I’m not paranoid, it’s reality.”
For McGowan, doubts about how her narrative is being consumed are clearly secondary to the joy of being heard after decades of deafening silence. If there’s one defining emotion in Citizen Rose—a series that’s really about emotional as they come—it’s relief. After years and years of being either ignored or misunderstood, McGowan is finally being validated and encouraged to share her truth, as she sees it. The resulting two hours of truth-telling is probably more sincere than anything E! has ever aired. It’s almost as if the network can’t come to terms with the fact that they have a truly gripping, meaningful, timely subject on their hands, leading them to resort to unnecessary filler material—inexplicable interludes of interpretive dancing and bright flashing lights.
Still, when McGowan speaks, it’s well worth the wait. While she insists that she has been attempting to tell her story for years, it’s only in recent months that McGowan has become legible. Before, she was alternatively seen as a sex symbol or a loose cannon; narratives that McGowan convincingly argues were forced upon her. Citizen Rose is as much about the “open secret” of Harvey Weinstein’s serial sexual abuse as it is about the way that women in Hollywood are deliberately seen but not heard.
Early on in the episode, we go through the timeline of McGowan’s assault. She explains that, “When it happened to me I was in the middle of my second movie for him. I had a 10 a.m. meeting in the restaurant. The maître d’ said he’s not ready yet, they want you to go up to his office…I get up there, two male assistants come out…I had an MTV crew following me that morning, it was supposed to be Rose McGowan, a day in the life. I turn to the cameras right when I was about to go into the hotel, and I say, ‘I think my life is finally getting easier.’”
In a larger conversation about sexual-assault survivors, it’s important to point out that McGowan, a famous white actress, comes from a place of immense privilege. Still, the history that she recalls is a painful one, from a childhood spent in the Children of God cult to what she calls “the cult of Hollywood.” McGowan went from being a young star with all of the opportunities in the world to an assault survivor working on a movie for her alleged rapist. Over decades, just trying to do her job, she was consistently forced to interact with Weinstein, and made to remember that he was the one in power. McGowan describes turning on the TV “to see Gwyneth Paltrow giving him humanitarian awards,” or going to the movies and seeing his name. “I saw him all the time,” she breaks down to her mom in one scene. “I didn’t get to be me for 17 years…you’re literally trapped in the tiniest town in the world.”
While Citizen Rose attempts to tackle an ambitious array of topics, from gender equity in the entertainment industry to the entire arc of #MeToo, the pilot’s strength is in its specificity. It’s laudable that McGowan is using her platform to stand in solidarity with all women, but she’s at her most nuanced and insightful when she talks from personal experience, navigating the way that these interlocking traumas continue to affect her. In one particularly brutal scene, McGowan meets with fellow Weinstein accuser Asia Argento. They talk about how they blocked out their assaults, and debate the use of the term “victim.” McGowan remarks that, “to see Meryl Streep calling him God was fucking hard,” and it’s one of many moments when McGowan refuses to hold punches when discussing Hollywood elites. Later on, she elaborates on her mistrust of the gesture of wearing black to the Golden Globes, calling it “stunt-ish”: “I’m sure a lot of these women are well meaning, but it’s a PR machine stunt overall.”
Undoubtedly, people will criticize Citizen Rose—McGowan has been criticized before for how she expresses her anger, often unleashing it on other women who she blames for their complicity or for not speaking up. But if there’s anyone who has earned the right to tell her story however she sees fit it is McGowan, who was victimized, objectified, silenced, misunderstood, and traumatized in about a million ways. Like McGowan tells Argento, it’s her right to claim her victimhood even as she takes pride in her survival—to talk about the “monster” who bought her silence for $100,000, the childhood she feels was stolen from her, and all of the other various predators, hurts, and injustices. McGowan’s pain, not to mention her anger, is a messy thing—it definitely doesn’t fit comfortably into two hours of E! footage, but it probably wouldn’t fit comfortably anywhere. As McGowan notes in the first few minutes of the show, she knows that she makes us uncomfortable. She also knows that we’re finally going to listen.